Liberators in Europe II

An early B-24D

In June 1942 the Wing became non-operational; a new and very specialised training period set in. Combat crews had no idea what ultimate target they were pointing for, but it was obvious that it had nothing to do with high-altitude bombing. The big ships were sent roaring over the countryside in tight formation at treetop level. Low-altitude bombsights were installed. Armament modifications, designed to increase firepower forward, were speeded up. The Liberator men, pleased with their new hair-raising tactics, speculated feverishly as to the nature of their next assignment. One month later, much to the relief of harassed livestock in English meadows, the Liberators were no longer to be seen in the skies of Britain.

They would be seen in many places before they came back: over Rome in the first attack on the marshalling yards that tumbled Mussolini from his shaky pedestal; over Austria in the assault on the Messerschmitt factory at Wiener-Neustadt, one of the longest bombing missions of the war.

However, the climax of their mission came 1,350 miles from their home stations as the bomber flies. To attack this target, they flew from Africa, not from England. They were operating with the Ninth Air Force, not with the 8th Bomber Command. To the ground echelons left on the Liberator stations of Britain, three-fifths of the American force that struck the Romanian oil refineries at Ploesti on 1 August were ‘our boys’.

Ten days later, at the station belonging to the oldest Liberator Group in the ETO, an eyewitness of the raid told how Lieutenant Colonel Addison E. Baker, commanding officer of that Group, led his last mission.2 The Liberators took off across the Mediterranean after three weeks of rigorous and secret training in the desert, where a rough replica of the target had been built. Practice runs had been made until the timing of the whole attack was polished to the last split second. Crews were briefed with movies and lectures down to the last oil derrick in the target area.

With each plane carrying 3,100 gallons of gasoline and 5,000 lbs of delayed-action bombs, the bombers swept north and thundered over the coast of the Balkan Peninsula at 10,000 feet. It was a long trip, without the monotony of high-altitude approach. Once across the Danube, the formation came down to attack level. In the Romanian wheat fields only 200 feet below, the thundering engines caused wild excitement. Combat crews could see details with startling clarity. One girl in bright peasant costume flung her apron over her head in panic. An old couple fell on their knees and prayed. Some farmers threw stones and pitchforks. A man leading two horses beside a stream took one look and plunged headlong in to the water. Nor was all the excitement limited to people on the ground. No fewer than ten crews reported that as they crossed a river a girl was swimming in it. Opinion was unanimous that she was without benefit of bathing suit.

The plan was to sweep down on the oil refineries from the north, but two of the Groups, including Baker’s, passed south of the target on their first approach. The leading Group made a wide circle, but Baker, spotting a refinery, turned and made a direct run for it.

By this time the defences were fully alert. Fighter planes were up. So low were the Liberators that more than once the fighters dove into the ground in frantic efforts to intercept them. As one crew member put it laconically, ‘Those fighters used non-habit-forming tactics!’

Flak was more of a menace than fighters. Everything from machine guns hidden in haystacks to 88 mm cannon firing over open sights blasted at the Liberators. The guns in the big planes replied, waist gunners picking off riflemen, sending bursts of incendiaries in to oil storage tanks which exploded in sheets of flame.

Before the mission, Baker had stressed the absolute necessity of flying a tight formation in order to hit the relatively small target with the maximum number of bombs. ‘If anything happens to the lead ship,’ he said, ‘pay no attention. Don’t swerve. No matter what happens, keep straight.’

On the way in to the target a shell struck the right side of the cockpit of Baker’s ship. It probably killed the co-pilot and must have injured Baker, but he kept to his course. Fire broke out. Seconds later, just at the target, a heavier-calibre shell made a direct hit. Enveloped in flames, the Liberator shot over the target, dropped its bombs and crash-landed near the refinery it had helped to destroy. Colonel Baker is listed as Missing in Action.

Operation Tidal Wave. Air Raid Ploesti! A B-24 flying over a burning oil refinery at Ploesti, Romania, 1 August 1943

In Last of The Many, Tex McCrary wrote an account of Ploesti, which he called ‘Operation Whopper’:

It’s now American history, what happened on that raid, where fifty-three Libs were lost. But I’d like to tell you a few special stories. One is about Colonel Baker, the CO of the Circus who had said that he would lead his outfit to the target ‘even if my plane falls apart.’

It was a good day, that Sunday, when the brown-green ships from the Eighth and the sand-pink ships of the Desert Ninth Air Force headed north across the Mediterranean. As they crossed the Balkans, they saw farmers in the fields even on Sunday and once they saw naked girls bathing in a river. ‘Let’s bail out here!’ was the instant wisecrack that bounced around over the intercoms.

Baker’s ship was in the lead as they went into the target. The flak was heavy and accurate.

Some of the boys said there were an awful lot of new guns around there – new earth around the gun emplacements. Baker’s ship was hit, hit hard. Joe Tate5 saw the whole thing:

‘Baker was four hundred feet in front of me. He got hit three times: once far out on the wing, then at the roots of the wing and then finally square in the cockpit. His wing tanks and the bomb bay tank burst into a sheet of yellow flame. The Force was still sixty seconds from the target. The minute he was hit, he jettisoned his bombs – you can tell when the pilot drops them instead of the bombardier – they just dumped. But Baker kept on leading the Force into the target, like he said he would, aiming his ship for the narrow space between the towers of the cracking plants in the heart of the refinery we were headed for. I saw something coming down out of the nose-wheel hatch of Baker’s ship – it was a man’s legs. He dropped clear and came tumbling back over our props as his ’chute caught the air – came so close I could see that his legs were on fire. Baker kept his ship on course.

‘But when we got right on top of the target, the devil himself couldn’t have held that ship in formation any longer. Baker was flying pilot and Jerstad was co-pilot. The cockpit must have been a blast furnace. We could see the flames through the windows as the ship lost speed and we pulled up with it. The right wing started to crumple and drop off, but not before old Bake had taken us through the target. And then he pulled his ship up into a steep climb. God only knows how anybody inside could have been still alive, but something inside was pulling the ship up and up and out of the path of our Force. Three men fell out the back of her and then it fell off and crashed into a field.

‘Baker could have saved himself if he had wanted to belly-land in a field before we got to the target, when he was first hit. Other ships had made belly landings. But Baker stuck.’

Seven of the ten men in Baker’s ship had finished their tours of duty; they volunteered for the Ploesti job.

‘Coming back was secondary…’

‘Thundering down from the north,’ continues Target: Germany,

another VIII Bomber Command Group led by Colonel Leon Johnson saw the delayed-action bombs of Baker’s Group exploding in the target area. By going in at 500 feet or higher, Johnson could have lessened the danger from ground explosions, but mushrooming smoke would have made accurate bombing difficult. He took his Group in at 230 feet, the height of the tallest chimneys.

Casualties were heavy, but the target was completely wrecked. For his courage and leadership, Colonel Johnson received the nation’s highest award, the Congressional Medal of Honor. He returned safely.

Near one of the targets, airmen saw the crew of a Liberator that had been shot down standing near their crumpled plane, waving their arms and cheering like maniacs. The surviving bombers raced away across the fields so low that some of them came back with corn stalks stuck in their bomb bays. Behind them on the horizon huge columns of smoke bore witness to the effectiveness of their work. ‘I wouldn’t give a million dollars for the experience of that raid,’ a gunner said afterwards, ‘and I wouldn’t give ten cents for another like it!’

That was the story as told to members of Colonel Baker’s Group at their deserted station somewhere in England. ‘You can be proud of your boys,’ the eyewitness said.

They were proud of them, of the ships they flew and of the job they did. The story would be remembered as long as there were Liberator men left to tell it. The Germans would remember it, too – five refineries hit, at least two of them completely smashed. The price paid in men and machines was high. It was no higher than expected. The crews that survived knew that the losses in planes would be made good with newer, better planes. They knew they could never replace the men.